The Neponset River

It’s Sunday morning and when I sat started writing this piece it was 7:20 a.m. and a few minutes before my friends would be setting out to run the Sugarloaf Marathon. I was to be there running with them this morning but last Monday I tested positive for COVID after going for a walk in the park and discovered I was unable to smell what I’d heard were fragrant lilacs. My friend joked, “You have COVID!” I was surprised to learn I in fact did, that this illness that has happened to so many others has now happened in me.  

So this morning instead of being out on the road in the mountains of Maine, I’m here at my little table by the window, looking down over the Neponset River rippling dark green and gray through the brilliant green leaves of the golden birch by the bank. It’s a gray morning, a slight breeze and turn to the leaves, unseasonably warm. 

The river below has been such a metaphor for my time these past three months as I’ve been serving as the Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline.  I have said to many I have never been so relaxed and anxiety-free as a pastor ever before in my career. I don’t know what to make of it. 

Yes, good work to do, and such good people and staff to do it with. Yes, the privilege of sharing this beautiful apartment here by the river thanks to friends from Maine. Yes, its been the gift of long morning runs along the Neponset River Trail this spring as I’ve been preparing for this marathon today.  

Its been the joy of the most absurdly difficult and fun gym class I’ve ever taken at the Dorchester Y. It’s been weekly dinners with an old friend and sailing on the Charles. Its good conversations and late afternoon yoga class around the block from the church that has made this training the best I’ve ever had. Thanks to yoga, I can still touch my toes and am not stiff as a board, grouchy and gaunt as I’ve been preparing for other marathons. It’s been a wonderful season of training, of giving myself to receive the gifts of this time.  

Its been a long journey to come to this particular bend in the river and I give thanks for all it has been to bring me here so blessed and at peace. 

As I sit here scribbling these words this morning with my morning coffee, I open my news feed.  The headline of yet another mass murder yesterday, and the targeted deaths of yet more black men and women by a white supremacist. People just out for their Saturday morning shop looking to pick up a loaf of bread and jar of mayonnaise and meeting a young man with a gun around the corner. 

The racial hate and violence in the news again today is something we don’t want to see but is in fact nothing new. Racism takes so many hidden forms in the fabric of our everyday society and institutions that are just as insidious, violent and deadly. Racism is in the water which we all live in this country, in this river that has carried me here. 

My friend reminds me that the Neponset River is now a hazardous waste site. Like the river, the toxicity here is old. 

Just up from my apartment where the bridge crosses from Milton into Dorchester Lower Mills, there’s a historical marker for the mill that was built here in 1675 to manufacture gunpowder for King Philips war. 

2,500 colonists, 30% of the English population of New England died in the war. At least twice that number of Native Americans were killed. Some historians estimate that the combined effects of war, disease and starvation killed half the Native population in the region.  

My morning runs take me past an idealized mural of members of the Neponset tribe looking out over the river. Along the trolley track beside the trail, the old yellow trolley rattles by long overdue for repair. At a recent public meeting the Metropolitan Transit Authority apologized to the neighbors along the track which ends in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods for false promises and neglected commitments. History keeps repeating itself.  

I’ve run down the river trail past Carson Beach where on August 10, 1975, “hundreds of Black protesters, fed up with the indignity and terror of living in a segregated city rallied to assert their right to use Boston’s public spaces. What started as a peaceful protest devolved into violence between Black and White demonstrators, further cementing Boston’s national reputation for racial rancor.” (Deanna Pan, Boston Globe, July 13, 2020) 

1675, 1975.  History keeps repeating itself.  

Today I wonder, what does it mean to give yourself to the river?  I mean, all of the river.  

The river is long and flowing, brightened by brilliant green leaves and the plaintive song of the redwing blackbird.  This is true. And this as well: The river is toxic and carries the blood and violence both done to and inflicted by the divergent communities and generations that have sought to make a life beside it.  

Today the river is its own dividing line between predominantly white communities and communities of color. Milton where I live is 72% white; across the river, is Dorchester which is 21% white. 

What might it might it mean to give yourself to the healing of a river? 

From where I sit this morning, the river turns beyond where I can see until appearing there again across the marsh golden in the setting sun. 

Years ago in a time of wrestling and questions, a friend spoke to me of rivers. Of the futility of fighting to turn the flow and the necessity of giving ourselves to the current and way of the river, to this unfolding gift of life which is always moving and changing.  

I think of his words today and the places where I rejoice in the river flowing and beautiful and yet can hide all that I don’t want to see.  

I think where the river is dammed and drifts into stagnant pools. 

I think of what it might mean to give myself to all that is this river, to all that it carries and has carried me here – both the beautiful and good and the toxic and terror which which has both harmed me and benefited me.  

In the river below is a white crested duck abandoned here by its owners last summer. They’ve survived the winter, made friends with the cormorants, mallards and squawking geese. They’re out there now paddling after the mallard. They too have given themselves to this unfamiliar and blessed place, to this turn of the river. From all signs, they’ve survived. But I want for them what I long for myself, for all of us – something even more, to thrive.  

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